Dr Michael Mosley: How to tackle Zoom fatigue
After nearly two years of working from home, the novelty of video conferencing has rather worn off...
As the New Year approaches, one resolution I am determined to make and stick to is to spend less time on Zoom and other forms of video-conferencing software. What started out as a great way to keep in contact with other people during lockdown has turned into a brain-draining, bottom-numbing experience that has sapped a lot of joy out of my life.
So what is it about spending way too many hours doing video calls that is so soul destroying? For enlightenment, I turned to Prof Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). Earlier in 2021, he published a study that outlined the theoretical arguments for the causes of Zoom fatigue and why we experience it. He also offered some solutions.
First, when you are on a Zoom call you do an awful lot of close-up eye contact, much more than you would in normal life. In ‘real’ meetings I spend a lot of time doodling or staring out of the window.
When I was first asked to present a TV series, I went to Jeremy Clarkson for advice (I had just made a series with him called Inventions That Changed The World). He told me that the key to being a good presenter is not to stare continuously at the camera, but to spend a lot of time gazing off into the distance, as though thinking. Staring is tiring and makes you look like a psychopath.
On top of that we rely a lot on nonverbal communication, and if you are on Zoom you feel obliged to exaggerate those smiles and nods, which is very tiring. One solution is to agree with others that you will turn your camera off when you are not speaking, but continue to listen in. Also, this is a good excuse to leave the room and hope nobody notices...
Second, seeing yourself while on a conference call is distracting and tiring. As Bailenson points out, we don’t normally spend meetings surrounded by giant mirrors. Studies have shown that when you can see yourself you become much more self-critical.
I did a small TV experiment where we put muffins and apples on a table in a pedestrianised square with a sign inviting people to help themselves. They overwhelmingly went for the muffins. But when we put a mirror on the table, so they could see themselves reaching for the muffin, many paused and went instead for the apple. You will be pleased to learn that on most video-conferencing platforms there is the option to ‘hide self-view’.
Third, video conferencing reduces your mobility. We know that sitting continuously is bad for our health, and that’s why, when I am on the phone, I like to walk around. I also find it helps keep me more alert. This is not really an option on Zoom, and though Bailenson suggests you set up your camera so you can pace around, I’m not sure how well that would work in practice. Of course, with your camera off you can fidget and pace to your heart’s content!
- This article first appeared in issue 371 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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